On the Letterman
With “Men With Banjos (Who Know How to Use Them)”
An Inside Report - By Dr. Banjo (Pete Wernick)
we did it!
banjos, two guitars, one mandolin, and a piano, playing Foggy Mt. Breakdown
at top speed for three and a half minutes. Wouldn't be such a big deal,
but in this case something made it daunting - being on the David Letterman
show. National TV! Yow!
It all started with
Steve Martin, famous comic, actor, writer, and not-so-famous banjo player.
A major banjo devotee, and a fine player, he decided to put together an
unlikely banjo band, featuring the incomparable Earl Scruggs, Tony Ellis,
Charles Wood…. and …. Me!
idea was to put on a concert as part of the high-arts New Yorker Festival.
That's still to come, in a few days, but the biggie was the Letterman
show appearance, set up as to plug the festival. Just how many bands first
get together and meet each other in the afternoon, then play their first
gig the same night - on national TV? A 9-person band playing at top speed,
with an age range of 23 (my son Will) to 81 (Earl). A wonderful opportunity
for the banjo, for bluegrass music, and just a bit nerve-wracking. When
you're playing 11 notes a second, and you have to hang together with other
people all trying to play at exactly the same speed, well, it's a challenge.
The big day finally
arrived. I'm writing at the end of that big day. Joan, Will, and I flew
into NYC last night, got a strange middle-aged cab driver in a yarmulke
(Jewish skull cap), who kept talking about Pink Floyd, which is all he
listens to, driving the city at night. Drops us off at the Royalton Hotel,
on 44th St. in midtown Manhattan. Pretty pricey place, not paid by us,
thank goodness. We were thirsty but passed up the $10 bottle of Evian
water, and filled glasses from the tap. At about 2am, having had no time
to practice, I headed downstairs to ask where in this (ritzy, trendy,
overpriced) hotel a banjo guy could practice Foggy Mt. Breakdown without
waking up other guests. I was directed to an out-of-the-way bar in the
hotel, a circular, small, strange place with enough padded seats to absorb
the loud sounds I then proceeded to make for the next hour and a half.
Hitting the hay at 3:30am, I was beat, but my hands felt good, and I knew
I was as prepared as I could be.
at 8:30am, a mighty pricey (but good) breakfast, and then Will and I headed
for the Ed Sullivan Theater on West 53rd. Not much more than a half mile
away, but morning traffic made it take more than 10 minutes. Such huge
buildings to drive among, and the small streets between them clogged mainly
with huge semi delivery trucks, cabs, and a lot of people honking.
The stage door was
pretty well disguised, but we found it, and were introduced to the stage
and sound crew. I had become the liaison from the group to the Letterman
show, had drawn up a stage plot showing microphone and monitor speaker
locations, and went over the details with the friendly and professional
folks at the show. Managed to take photos (soon to be on DrBanjo.com)
of Will and I each sitting at Dave's desk, and of course, the remarkable
3-D lit model of the Triborough Bridge that serves as the show's longstanding
backdrop. As I stood in the familiar Letterman stage area, I looked at
the audience seating, and started remembering seeing the Ed Sullivan show
Sunday nights as a kid: Elvis, and later the Beatles, and years later,
all those Letterman guests, right here from this spot. My racing mind
settled for a bit, and I took it all in.
Then off to Steve's
for rehearsal. Steve has a large and lovely apartment with a beautiful
view of Central Park. As the musicians showed up, I think everyone felt
a bit awkward. None of us banjo pickers had ever played very much with
one another, and a few of them barely knew any of the others. We took
out instruments. Earl is always up for a bit of picking, and we tried
Sitting on Top of the World, Down the Road, Cripple Creek, and then went
to work on Foggy. As it was still early in the day, with everyone getting
all warmed up, it was a bit rough. Some were more apt and able to pick
faster than others at first, but it started coming together. We worked
out an arrangement, Steve leading the way, with us regularly checking
with Earl for his OK.
After a few times
playing sitting in a circle, we stood in the setup like the one I'd just
helped put together at the TV show. Still working on keeping the timing
really solid, while keeping it quiet enough not to cover up the sound
of the lead player. With everyone's hands wearing down, we took some lunch
and a little tour of Steve's place, featuring really excellent and tasteful
art. Good to clear the head and rest for a while, but then back to Foggy.
Earl was gaining strength and agility with each runthough, but was used
to ending it a certain way, thought we'd decided on a unison ending with
all five players going at once. After a few mishaps on the ending, it
became my job to cue Earl on the unison part, and by going over that a
number of times, we tightened it all up and headed back downstairs to
the waiting cars.
ride to the hotel and our respective rooms, to suit up, then back down
and into one 15-passenger van with a total of 10 people and 7 instrument
cases. Earl and his wife Louise, and Tony Ellis, all 70 or older, got
in the cramped van with no complaints. Troopers! Now in NYC rush hour
traffic, the slightly more than half-mile took over 20 minutes. Now there
were hordes of people around the stage door, none especially interested
in us. Steve and the other Letterman guest, actor George Clooney, were
the ones they were after. We just wanted to get inside.
Room temperature in
the Ed Sullivan Theater was now about 50 degrees, as I'd heard it would
be, and enough to get my fingers cold and stiff in just a few minutes.
But we did several runthroughs of the number while the stage, sound, and
camera people did their tweaks. Paul Shaffer, the Late Show bandleader,
was invited by Earl to join us for a solo, and also supplied solid rhythmic
backup, which helped keep us together. Joan, Will, and Bill Ellis (Tony's
son, playing guitar) were on a short riser platform behind us. Making
sure everyone could hear everyone else well enough to keep a tight rhythmic
sound at 162 beats a minute is both critical and difficult. After probably
our 15th rendition of Foggy for the day, we left our instruments in the
cold downstairs, not wanting them to rise in pitch any more than when
we first took them out.
OK, now upstairs to
makeup, where George Clooney (who'd actually turned down makeup) was hanging
out with a few folks and talking about his recent death-defying back operation,
featuring his own spinal fluid in his nose (!). My son the moviemaker
managed to change the subject and was able come away saying George was
a friendly guy. Meanwhile, Joan got a pro makeup and hair job, and looked
just gorgeous, the prettiest bluegrass girl around!
Now we're watching
the beginning of the show on the monitors in the small rooms in the backstage
area. Steve indicated he was nervous, and it surprised me a bit, with
his huge amount of successful stage work. I asked, wasn't the standup
comedy he'd done for so many years at least as stressful? No, he said,
that came much more naturally to him. Bravo to Steve for building his
picking skills to a high level and braving on to this challenging spot,
despite music stage inexperience. He pulled it off, too! But I'm getting
a little ahead of myself.
Now the time's getting
close. We've been anticipating these few minutes for six months and it's
just moments away. Downstairs into that COLD studio, checking the banjo
tuning (still in, YES!). Thinking about the gobs of support I've received
from friends and fans, making me feel that I'm doing this for a lot more
than myself, but for the banjo and for bluegrass music, for the people
who have supported me, the community I live in, and the sake of the good
honest music I love and the life I lead. Something way bigger than “I
hope I do well on TV”, sort of hard to explain. And somehow or other,
I just never did get especially nervous. We'd done our prep, we were ready
for the big game. At one point, a wave of worry came over me, and I just
breathed it right back out. Almost time to go.
We're in position.
Dave Letterman is right over there, introducing us. Earl starts it, and
I pull out the clearest, cleanest high chord chops I can, as the rhythm
section kicks, in and -- we're off! Uh oh! Big trouble! The audience is
clapping along, really loud! I know what usually happens in this situation.
They're going to slow down a little at a time and it will be super-hard
to keep the rhythm together with them just a bit behind. I just stay in
the groove, chopping away. So far, so good, we're on top. I come in for
my break right after Earl, the band holding time, and me running right
through the stuff I've been practicing in my practice cabin all week,
and right up to last night at 3am in that little circular bar room at
the hotel. My hands are working, they're not freezing up, and the music
is moving along, 11 notes a second. I remember to smile a bit, and delivering
the music as well as I can. This whole moment of glory lasts just about
25 seconds, and on my last lick, I step out of the way as Steve comes
in on his break. Whoopsie, Steve's not used to playing over this kind
of loud clapping and gets a bit jarred, stumbling and almost breaking
But it hangs together,
and Charles rips through a very tricky and flashy break, followed by Tony's
artful sounds. These guys can pick! Back to Earl, and still winning the
rhythm battle over the crowd, into our unison end. Yes! We did it! Steve
calls off our names, Dave comes over and says hello, and that's the show.
I'd be feeling some relief about pulling it off, but I knew Steve could
have done a better break, and at that point I told him what Paul Shaffer
had told me during rehearsal: That if we had problems, we could do a re-take
after the show.
OK, back on stage,
and with the audience (and Dave) gone, here we are in the same spots,
surrounded by cameras and all, and Earl kicks it off again. He sure is
sounding good. My turn, holding on to the groove, no clapping to distract,
and it works out fine again. Whew! Out of the way for Steve. Much better
this time, but following his ride, Paul falls just a bit behind on his
amazing “banjo roll” on piano. I almost, not quite, broke
time to slow down for him, but you just can't do that in a 9-piece group.
Right back on tempo, and another great pair of solos from Charles and
Tony. Earl is playing strong, and we head into the unison with the best
effort of the day. A good finish and now we MUST be done.
Well, after a lot
of discussion with the sound people, it was decided that the first, with-audience
version was the better, other than Steve's break, and that he would overdub
his break in the sound studio downstairs. We went down there and Steve
got to work on the overdub. I went back up to let everyone know we were
using Take 1. When I got back to the sound studio, Steve is overdubbing
Take 2. Turns out that some important camera shots were missed on the
first take, and there is no longer a choice. It will be Take 2, replete
with a couple of flawed breaks. After trying some banjo re-takes, Harvey,
the crack engineer working the show that night found a way to “fix
it in the mix”.
We left the studio,
still a bit uncomfortable that maybe we hadn't done too well. Walking
out on the street, what a startle when suddenly a lot of cameras flash,
and people start calling out, “Hey Steve!”. Kind of like the
audience clapping along, a well-intentioned but distracting act, and an
inevitable part of high level show biz. Steve, ever the pro, flashed his
winning smile and ducked into the waiting car.
Later, over drinks
at the hotel, Steve is a wonderful host, chatting with me and Joan, Charles
Wood, and Earl's son Gary, about all sorts of things, bring people out
with questions about themselves, and all of us quite a bit more relaxed
after the stress of the day.
Cut an hour later
to the Wernick family, up in our hotel. The show is on, and we start getting
nervous all over again. Was the mixing good, did we really do all right?
Performers can be an insecure lot. We had played well, the crowd loved
it, the show's crew and staff seemed very pleased, and yet we were wound
up, just as we had been on stage, and just as worried as the pitcher in
the _self of the ninth with men on and a 3-2 count. There's the funny
bit about new kids' books, there's the Top Ten, there's Clooney talking
about his spinal problems and the clip about his new movie about broadcasting
great, Edward R. Murrow.
Now lots, I mean LOTs
of commercials. When will they end? Finally -- there's Earl kicking it
off. Same right hand I saw on TV at 14 years old, that great tone-generating
right hand. That was in 1960. This is 45 years later! He's not 36 as he
was then, but listen to him pick. Wow, now it's me, and it sounds indeed
like I carried it off. There are Joan and Will on the screen, picking
it solid, now go Steve and Paul, fixed in the mix, and on through Charles
and Tony. Back to Earl, the big unison, and out! Wow, it really did sound
good! We even thought we looked good, comfortable and confident. (Now
you know better.)
Well, it really happened.
There we were, the little Wernick family up in our trendy weird hotel
room in midtown Manhattan, having just been beamed out nationwide, even
worldwide. Too late to mess it up now. It's done!
I remembered what
Steve had said downstairs just before about the first time he was on Johnny
Carson. He had felt “Now I've made it.” But nobody around
town seemed to notice. After a few spots, he'd have people saying “Don't
I know you?” but they would typically figure that he must have been
a buddy of their brothers, or some such. Steve said it took about 15 appearances
before people knew his name and where they'd seen him.
Well, it might be
14 more to go, but this was one day and night to remember. I hope the
biggest beneficiaries are the music I love and the people who are devoted
to it. If some kid at home (staying up a bit too late!) sees us and gets
“the fever”, then I'd say, mission accomplished.
It's great to have
this behind us. I am looking forward to the next five nights, where we'll
be with friends and great musicians, both relaxing and performing, enjoying
life and music. Back in Colorado after that, then out to California to
play with Hot Rize in Golden Gate Park. I sure feel like a lucky guy!
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